Born: May 27, 1946;

Died: May 12, 2021.

NICK Downie, who has died of Covid-19, aged 74, used his experience of fighting with the SAS on daring operations around the world to film television documentaries in places of war and upheaval, and was noted for his fearlessness in getting pictures at the centre of the action.

The dangers faced were laid bare when, in 1978, he teamed up in Rhodesia with journalist Richard Cecil, another former soldier, and son of the 6th Marquess of Salisbury, whose family had close links with the former British colony that had defiantly made a unilateral declaration of independence 13 years earlier.

Cecil used his connections to join government forces on counter-insurgency operations during the bush war with national liberation armies fighting for black majority rule, and acted as Downie’s sound recordist.

The resulting documentary, Front Line Rhodesia, for the ITV current affairs series TV Eye, featured Downie’s dramatic footage of close-range killing during combat. As a freelance prepared to cover guerilla warfare, this made him attractive to television companies that regarded the risks as too great for their own staff.

Their fears were soon borne out when Cecil, a week after being seen helping a fatally wounded soldier into a helicopter, was shot dead from less than five metres away by one of Robert Mugabe’s Zanu guerrillas.

Downie continued to make the programme, which – by virtue of his independence as a film-maker in hostile territory – he produced, directed and narrated. “In this war, the killing is done at such close range that a soldier actually sees the expression on his victim’s face as he dies,” Downie says over film of one killing.

Front Line Rhodesia was the second of three Downie documentaries for ITV to win Royal Television Society awards.

A year earlier, This Week – TV Eye’s original title – screened War in the Sahara, with chilling footage of a firefight in the desert that included a Polisario guerrilla’s head being blown off.

Downie, who joined the Polisario Front in their fight against Moroccan government troops over control of the western Sahara, was regarded by the guerrillas as a mysterious, DH Lawrence-like figure, known to them only as “the Englishman”.

Later, for his final award-winning TV Eye film, he spent four months dressed as a hill tribesman with the Mujahideen in their war against Russian-backed Afghanistan’s government troops, tramping from one guerilla camp to another – and was attacked by bandits who stole almost everything but his camera.

He finished shooting With the Afghan Rebels (1980) four days before the Soviet invasion of December 1979.

He was back there in 1982 to film street-by-street fighting in Kandahar for another TV Eye documentary, Challenging the Russians.

Nicolas Jon Downie was born in Barnet, Middlesex, in 1946 to Thea (nee Taylor), a nurse, and Vivian (known as Nicky) Downie, a surgeon.

On leaving Haileybury and Imperial Service College, in Hertfordshire, he planned to follow his father’s career by training as a doctor at Middlesex Hospital Medical School but dropped out in his final year to join the SAS. He was the only civilian among the 120 candidates to pass the selection exam.

His final campaign as a trooper in the 22nd Special Air Service Regiment (1968-72) was in the de facto British colony of Oman as part of Britain’s long-time “secret” war to keep oil flowing through the Strait of Hormuz. The SAS helped to crush the Dhofar rebels fighting for an independent state, aided by arms and supplies from South Yemen and other communist governments.

Downie then left it to become a mercenary in the Sultan of Oman’s Bedouin irregular forces (1972-74). He commanded a sabotage unit pushing deep into South Yemen and, after taking the surrender of one fort, ensured it would not be used again by laying three times the gelignite needed to demolish it – “as a demonstration that we had arrived”.

In 1974, he moved on to Iraqi Kurdistan to train Peshmerga guerillas in tactics for attacking Baghdad, but they were overrun by Saddam Hussein’s troops after the dictator did a deal with Iran the following year to stop its support for the rebels.

By then, Downie had started taking his camera on assignments and sold a 40-second film clip of the Peshmerga rebels in action to the BBC for £60.

Then, in 1975, he left soldiering behind and joined journalist Gwynne Roberts to walk from Sudan into civil war-torn Ethiopia. After three months, they came back with footage of deserted villages, refugees living in caves and the Eritrean Liberation Front training guerillas, including women and young boys.

When they offered their documentary, The Savage War, to ITV, the technicians’ union was concerned about using work from freelances but agreed to this where it was too “hazardous” for in-house crews.

This Week incorporated the film into War in Ethiopia (1976), presented by Jonathan Dimbleby, who had made documentaries about the country before being banned following the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie.

After his work on TV Eye, Downie made Survive, a 1984 Channel 4 series, with reporter John Man, roaming the world to interview those who had experienced torture and concentration camps, and established survival techniques in extreme conditions.

Downie filmed the Unita rebels in Angola for his 1991 documentary They Burn Witches Don’t They, for the BBC’s Assignment series, and was an embedded camera operator for the US military in Iraq in 2003. In 2011, after three years of living in a tent with his mules on an Andalusian mountainside, he moved to South Africa.

Downie’s 1977 marriage to Hilary Payne ended in divorce 15 years later. He is survived by their daughters, Thea and Lara.